On June 24, 2006, then Sgt. 1st Class Brendan O’Connor was on a mission to kill or capture Taliban leadership. But his Special Forces unit was ambushed by more than 250 enemy fighters. During the intense combat, the team was split into three; two soldiers became isolated and seriously wounded.
To protect the soldiers from torture, mutilation and execution by the Taliban, the Afghan translator radioed for permission to kill the wounded and himself. Outnumbered and surrounded, O’Connor volunteered to lead a quick reaction force to rescue his comrades.
Under a barrage of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, O’Connor crawled across an open field with an orange target identifier on his back to mark the enemy and prevent aircraft friendly fire from hitting him. Once he reached the soldiers, O’Connor provided medical care and fought off the enemy.
He then carried the wounded back through the rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire, using his body armor to protect his comrades. He brought them to safety, but his mission was not complete. By the end of the battle, O’Connor had successfully rescued two comrades, saved the lives of 21 soldiers, prevented his team’s destruction, and sadly, mourned the loss of Master Sgt. Tom Maholic.
For his valor under fire, O’Connor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
On this 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the commemoration of Veterans Day, we honor veterans like O’Connor who have kept so many safe.
Today, our “most seasoned” living veterans are the ones who served in World War II. They are the ones who fought in Europe and the Pacific to throw back tyrants and liberate hundreds of millions. Men like my grandfather, Private 1st Class Alex Sapien.
Others defended our interests in the mountains of Korea and in — or over — the jungles of Vietnam; men like friend and mentor Brig. Gen. (retired) Harry Mott; my father Lt. Col. (retired) Chuck Howe; and my father-in-law Chief Warrant Officer 3 (retired) Rick Emmart. Still, other veterans served during the long vigil of the Cold War through Desert Storm.
For the last 17 years, we have honored a new generation of veterans. From the mountains and villages of Afghanistan, to the deserts and cities of Iraq, our all-volunteer military has brought down tyrants and persecuted terrorists. They have liberated two nations, brought freedom to more than 50 million people, and ensured our homeland would not be attacked again. They are men and women like my friend and one-time senior medic, Brendan O’Connor.
O’Connor’s strength is truly the strength of America.
That strength transcends the power of military equipment, no matter how impressive. As Gen. George S. Patton said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow, and the man who leads that gains the victory.”
You can see that same inner strength when you talk to one of our nation’s veterans and ask why he or she served. You will see in their eyes that strength, and the blaze of patriotism. It is an enduring quality.
To all of our veterans and their families I say that whenever and wherever your service took place, you earned this nation’s respect on the day you first put on the uniform. And you still command America’s respect today.
For more than 243 years, the indomitable strength of the men and women of our Armed Forces has embodied the strength of our nation — veterans like Sapien, Mott, Howe, Emmart and O’Connor, and all of their comrades-in-arms who have ever served.
As our military servicemen and women come home, our country still needs their character, service and leadership. The strength of our nation will also reside in the character of the communities and citizens that effectively honor and empower them as they transition from military service into civilian life. In so doing we enable a new generation of leaders.
May God bless our veterans, may God bless all who wear the uniform, may God bless those who will wear the uniform, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.